Wednesday, August 29, 2012

There are few more tired subgenres than the quirky romantic comedy. It has been interesting to watch how indie romances have turned into their own specific genre over the last couple of decades, complete with their own particular cliches and familiar rhythms.

To its credit, Lee Toland Krieger's Celeste and Jesse Forever attempts to look at the genre from a new angle, from the point of view of a couple that has just broken up and are embarking on a new era of friendship. Unfortunately it gets caught up in some of the same tired tropes that have plagued the genre for years.

Celeste (Rashida Jones, who also co-wrote the screenplay) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have just had the perfect breakup. By civilly acknowledging their differences and lack of romantic compatibility, they have managed to remain best friends, still spending nearly all their time together (Jesse lives in a loft in Celeste's back yard) and going out on "dates" with their friends.

Left to Right: Andy Samberg as Jesse and Rashida Jones as Celeste
Photo by David Lanzenberg, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
But their continued friendship and the fact that nothing has changed between them other than the lack of sex makes some of their friends uncomfortable, who believe that there must be some attraction left between them, despite their insistence to the contrary. Jesse seems stuck in perpetual childhood, a thirtysomething man-child who would rather play video games and watch the Chinese Olympics all day than take on anything resembling adult responsibility. Celeste is a driven career woman, a "trend forecaster" who has just written a book that she wishes were more successful. It is clear that they are on very different paths, and Celeste wants someone more mature to be the father of her children.

Things change when Jesse starts dating another woman, a beautiful old flame named Veronica (Rebecca Dayan), raising up a swell of unexpected feelings in Celeste - jealousy, regret, sadness. When it is revealed that Jesse is going to be the father of Veronica's child, their relationship takes on a new timbre. The two of them clearly still have feelings for each other, but are once again on different paths, and each may finally be moving on for good.

 Left to Right: Rashida Jones as Celeste and Andy Samberg as Jesse
Photo by Lee Toland Krieger, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Celeste and Jesse Forever is a surprisingly serious minded film, especially considering its comedic aspirations. There is a lot to be said here about the nature of love and the importance of timing in any relationship. But the film is ultimately done in by its self consciously quirky screenplay. It simply tries too hard to be funny and hip, throwing in seemingly random, non-sequiter jokes that seemed designed to be charming or bizarrely humorous but just don't work. It's the kind of film that mistakes quirks for character development, and when such eccentricities become a distraction or feel forced, as they do here, then the blame must fall squarely on the writing.

It's a shame, too, because there is a lot of potential in its premise, and there are some nice moments provided by the leads. Krieger takes us in unexpected directions, which is especially rare in a film like this, imbuing the film with a kind of wistful melancholy that is hard to shake. But the awkward structure and stilted attempts at faux-quirk leave a bad taste. Rather than just allowing the humor to flow naturally from the characters and situations, it instead chooses to push the wrong buttons in a misguided attempt to be funny. Like Elijah Wood's awkward sassy gay boss who doesn't know how to be sassy, Celeste and Jesse Forever doesn't seem to know how to be the film it so desperately wants to be.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER | Directed by Lee Toland Krieger | Stars Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts, Rebecca Dayan | Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use | Now playing in select cities. Opens Friday, August 31, at the a/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem, NC, at the Park Terrace in Charlotte, NC and Concord Mills in Concord, NC.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mads Brügger is an interesting filmmaker. I was such a big fan of The Red Chapel, his 2010 documentary about North Korea, that it very nearly made my top ten list that year (it was an honorable mention at #12, right under Jacques Rivette's Around a Small Mountain).

In his latest film, The Ambassador, Brügger turns his focus away from the reclusive nation of North Korea to the arguably even more dangerous Central African Republic, a mostly lawless former French territory that serves as a stomping ground for all sorts of shady types looking to make a killing (literally) in the diamond industry.

Armed with authentic Liberian diplomatic credentials (a feat that has landed him in hot water with the Liberian government and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, despite the fact that she signed them herself), Brügger headed down to the CAR to get his hands on some of Africa's infamous blood diamonds. The result is something both fascinating and frustrating; a complex and at times muddled series of back room deals and suspicious characters who rarely if ever know they are under the ever watchful eye of Brügger's cameras.

Mr. Cortzen is appointed ambassador by Liberia's Foreign Minister, Toga McIntosh.
Posing as a Danish businessman looking to open a match factory, Brügger cons government officials into believing he is a legitimate businessman while convincing the corrupt that he is just as up to no good as they are. But it soon appears he may be in over his head when contacts he has made along the way begin dying. Thrust into the middle of the cutthroat world of African diamond trade and government corruption, Brügger may have just stumbled upon his most dangerous venture yet.

The biggest problem with all of this is that while Brügger may be exposing rampant corruption and underhanded dealings, he is also engaging in those behaviors himself. The project, which was funded by the Danish Film Institute, actually funneled money to crooks by paying out millions to purchase Brügger's diplomatic credentials while lining the pockets of corrupt officials with "envelopes of happiness" filled with money in order to procure the diamonds. While Brügger ended up selling the diamonds and donating all the proceeds to the Pygmy village to whom he promised employment in his nonexistent match factory, it's nearly impossible not to wince when you think about where the money he had previously spent actually ended up.

Brügger's Liberian diplomatic credentials, signed by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
One can't help but wonder, though, what exactly it is that Brügger is trying to say? If his goal is to expose corruption, then he clearly does. But's a long and complicated road to get there. The Ambassador is filled with so many back room deals and a revolving door cast of characters that it's hard to keep up with who is what to whom and where they're from and what they do. It's a much less funny film than The Red Chapel, but no less subversive. However here the problem is that Brügger's goal isn't quite as clear.

You have to respect him as a filmmaker. He's clearly a fearless (and, one could argue, reckless) muckracker with bigger cajones than Michael Moore could ever hope to have. But The Ambassador is in bad need of streamlining. Sure the covert nature of the filming doesn't exactly lend itself to a cohesive flow, but Brügger's construction doesn't help the already convoluted message surrounding his outlandish stunt. What is clear is that the Central African Republic is a dangerous place, and that many loopholes exist for unscrupulous Westerners to exploit the unstable remnants of post-colonial Africa. Already Liberia has set about trying to close some of those loopholes (while pursuing "hey you're missing the point" legal action against Brügger) so the film has clearly had an effect. But at what cost? They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And in this case you have to wonder just which road Brügger is on.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE AMBASSADOR | Directed by Mads Brügger | Not rated | Opens Wednesday, August 29, in NYC. Friday, August 31st, in Los Angeles.
Several years ago I raved about Marlene Rhein's debut feature film, The Big Shot-Caller, and have been eagerly awaiting her next project. It may have taken a few years, but last week that project landed in my inbox in the form of a Kickstarter campaign for her new web series, My Parents Are Crazier Than Yours, based on her blog which chronicles her life with her eccentric parents.

Rhein is a unique and witty talent who deserves a larger platform to showcase her brand of humor. If you haven't seen The Big Shot-Caller, check it out. And if you can, donate to the My Parents Are Crazier Than Yours Kickstarter campaign. They're almost to their $8,000 goal, and every little bit helps.
It's difficult to imagine a time when Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne weren't at the forefront of world cinema. But it wasn't until the Belgian filmmakers released Rosetta in 1999 and won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival that the world really began to sit up and notice.

The pair  had released La Promesse three years prior, which they consider the true beginning of their career, to great critical acclaim, and the Cannes accolades for Rosetta were the affirmation of the brothers' cinematic prowess. Their reputation would be cemented in 2002 when their next film, The Son, won two awards at Cannes, followed by another Palme d'Or win for L'Enfant in 2005, officially heralding their status as critical darlings and favorites on the Croisette.

Nowadays their names are familiar to all cinephiles, and they are doubtless two of the most accomplished and lauded filmmakers working today. But back in 1999, Rosetta was something of a blindside. And while they have arguably made better films since then, Rosetta was an early indication and maturation of their very distinctive style.

Emilie Dequenne as Rosetta and Fabrizio Rongione as Riquet.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

As pointed out in one of the bountiful extras on the spiffy new Criterion blu-ray, Rosetta is the duo's most female-centric film, even more so than 2009's Lorna's Silence. We first meet our heroine, Rosetta (Cannes Best Actress winner Emilie Dequenne), as she is running from some unknown assailant inside a factory. This kinetic, jarring opening drops us right in the middle of Rosetta's hard scrabble life. We soon realize that she isn't under attack, that her pursuers are her employers, and that she has just been let go from a job she desperately needs. Unwilling to leave, she pleads with them as she evades their grasp. But she isn't begging for their mercy, she's demanding that they keep her on. That's what sets Rosetta apart; not only is she fiery and strong willed, she doesn't just ask for what she wants, she demands it - and refuses to take no for an answer.

Rosetta, it turns out, is very poor, and the sole bread winner for her family. Her mother is a listless drunk who sleeps around with men (including their hard nosed landlord) for money and breaks on the rent. When food is scarce she catches fish in illegal fish traps near her home. A job is all that stands between her meager trailer park life and the street. Jobs, however, are hard to come by. Increasingly desperate and at the end of her rope, Rosetta becomes willing to do whatever it takes to procure even the most menial of jobs, even if it means betraying those close to her. But will finding work be worth stepping on others? Or will it make her just another cog in a ruthless and unforgiving system?

Emilie Dequenne as Rosetta. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Kinetic and almost uncomfortably realistic, Rosetta has all the traits we have come to expect from the brothers Dardenne - sparse dialogue, handheld camera work, lack of musical score. It foreshadowed the emotional depth of their films to come (including their most recent film, The Kid with a Bike, which recalls Rosetta in certain ways). It is its raw naturalism that makes the film so striking. Dequenne's cherubic, boyish face becomes something of window on which the audience can project itself, at once fiercely singular and familiar enough to be anonymous. Rosetta is a lost girl who is lost not for lack of trying, but for lack of opportunity. It is not a political film per se, but it is most interesting, especially in an election year of such heated rhetoric, to look back on a film with such immediate social themes. This girl finds herself in deep poverty, completely left behind by the system, and not through any fault of her own. She wants to work, needs to work, every fiber of her being strives for it. No one works harder than Rosetta. Yet despite her best efforts she still finds herself scraping the bottom of the barrel.

The Dardennes have a very clever way of illustrating a point without ever overstating it. In Rosetta the inherent essence of her struggle is clear - sometimes pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is impossible when there is nothing to hang your bootstraps on in the first place. Though not an American film, it's easy to see Rosetta's struggle applying here as well. It is a universal  tale of survival as told through the most relevant and contemporary means. Through what Kent Jones calls "radical economy" in his essay included in Criterion's new release, the Dardennes convey so much using so little, the seemingly strung together nature of the film ultimately containing a very specific and carefully plotted structure that brings a gravity to even the most mundane of events. Rosetta isn't just about one girl. It's about a whole class of people left behind by a faceless society in motion..

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ROSETTA | Directed by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne | Stars Emilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Anne Yernaux, Olivier Gourmet | Rated R for language | In French w/English subtitles | Now available on blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

I don't think it's any secret at this point that I'm a big fan of Disney's The Odd Life of Timothy Green, and while it may seem like a strange choice for someone like me to have embraced so fully I can't help how deeply it moved me.

One of my favorite aspects of the film is the tender score by Geoff Zanelli, and the theme song "This Gift" by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (of Once fame). Check it out above. And see the film, now playing everywhere.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

From The Dispatch:
Like the court jesters of old, "The Campaign" is able to expose essential truths about American politics under the guise of comedy that otherwise might not be said (at least not this memorably). And by casting Ferrell and Galifianakis as foils for each other (along with a strong supporting cast), Roach has crafted a smart and funny film. While it may start to meander a bit near the end, the stars keep the laughs coming fast and furious, even when the film itself doesn't quite seem to know where to go. 
Click here to read my full review.
Peter Hedges' The Odd Life of Timothy Green is one of those movies that most people can probably tell whether they will love or hate just by reading a brief plot synopsis. It might as well come with a disclaimer that reads "cynics need not apply."

It's certainly a schmaltz-fest. That much is clear just from the advertisements. This being a Disney movie, it unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve, but the real question here is - when did that become a bad thing?

We film critics tend to be a cynical lot, coldly examining the technical merits of a film and exploring its inner meanings (intended or not) and political ramifications that we often fail to just sit back and let a movie speak to us. The fact is not all movies are made to stimulate the brain. Some are made to stimulate the heart. And that's not always something that should be completely written off.

CJ Adams, (left) plays Timothy and Jennifer Garner, (right) plays Cindy Green in Walt Disney Pictures' 'The Odd Life of Timothy Green', directed by Peter Hedges. Ph: Phil Bray. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
This is especially true when a movie is clearly made with children in mind. The Odd Life of Timothy Green is reminiscent in some ways of the live action fare Disney released during the 1960s such as Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, wherein precocious children arrived in seemingly unusual circumstances and were often more grown up than the adults around them. The film that Timothy Green most resembles, however, is the similarly titled The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but rather than the dark mysticism of that film, Hedges embraces a sunny, fable-like quality that makes this an unmistakably Disney affair. But underneath its sunny exterior is something unexpectedly moving and even grown up, dealing with issues of mortality and child adoption. Timothy Green isn't just for kids. It's a movie for parents too.

Ultimately, it is a movie about parenting. A childless couple, Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton), have tried desperately for years to have a child of their own. After exhausting every known medical solution, the doctors finally tell them to give up. Heartbroken, the couple sits down and makes a list of every quality their imaginary child might have had, and in order to move on, they put the slips of paper in a box and bury it in the garden. That night, something magical happens, and out from the garden emerges the son they'd always dreamed of - an eight year old boy named Timothy (CJ Adams). Timothy is a seemingly normal child except for one thing - he has leaves growing out of his legs. Timothy quickly becomes part of the family, exhibiting all the traits they'd hoped he'd have. But as he touches the lives of all those around him, autumn begins to set in, and as Timothy's leaves begin to fall, it soon becomes apparent that he's hiding a painful secret that will change their lives forever.

Timothy Green (CJ Adams, left) and Joni Jerome (Odeya Rush, right) form a special bond when each of them reveals their deepest secrets. Photo by: Phil Bray. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Timothy Green follows a familiar path, surrounded by an admittedly idiosyncratic story that gives its somewhat cliched trappings a unique spin. Hedges, a North Carolina School of the Arts graduate who also helmed Pieces of April and Dan in Real Life, keeps this unusual tale grounded in tangible emotion rather than in grandiose mysticism or baldly manipulative strokes. It may be cloying at times, yes, and one's tolerance for the film will depend heavily on one's acceptance of the conceit along with their tolerance for often overt sentimentality. Such things must walk a very fine line in order to work and work well without turning the audience off completely. Hedges walks that line, performing a delicate balancing act that keeps The Odd Life of Timothy Green from descending into some sort of unwatchable schmaltzy soup.

It is the film's earnestness that makes it so winning. In an era when irony seems to pervade our popular culture, Timothy Green's unabashed innocence seems like something out of another time. It embraces its simplicity wholeheartedly, and emerges as something both deeply beautiful and completely charming. Shot in gorgeous, warm tones by John Toll (Braveheart, The Thin Red Line) and scored with a disarming tenderness by Geoff Zanelli (The Pacific), The Odd Life of Timothy Green is anchored by a strong performance by newcomer CJ Adams in the title role. Surrounded by an impeccable supporting cast that includes M. Emmet Walsh, Lois Smith, Dianne Wiest, Rosemarie DeWitt, David Morse, and Shohreh Aghdashloo, the film weasels its way into the heart and stays there, and those who are open to its particular charms will find a lot to cherish. Those who will find it unbearable (and you know who you are) are advised to stay far away. This isn't a film to be analyzed and picked apart for what it's not. It's a film to be felt for what it is. With an open heart (and an open mind), The Odd Life of Timothy Green is a wholly magical experience - a refreshingly old fashioned fable for the young and the young at heart.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN | Directed by Peter Hedges | Stars Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, CJ Adams, Rosemarie DeWitt, David Morse, Shohreh Aghdashloo, M. Emmet Walsh, Lois Smith, Dianne Wiest | Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language | Now playing everywhere.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Craig Zobel's 2007 feature debut, Great World of Sound, remains one of the most criminally overlooked and underseen films of the last decade. An exceedingly clever and charming comedy, the film remains one of the strongest and most original directorial debuts in years, an achievement for which Zobel has received precious little recognition in the ensuing years.

Until now.

His sophomore effort, Compliance, like Great World of Sound, was one of the talks of this year's Sundance Film Festival, but for a totally different reason. Unlike Zobel's first film, Compliance found itself embroiled in controversy, inspiring a great number of walkouts and even in-house shouting matches that turned the film into a strangely undeserved hot-button issue.The talk, rather than centering on how good the film is, became more about how controversial it was. The controversy is much ado about nothing, in my opinion. What we really should be talking about is what a striking and assured film Compliance is. It has taken the indie circuit by storm and critics are beginning to sit up and take notice of Zobel's now readily apparent talent.

Ann Dowd in COMPLIANCE, a Magnolia Pictures release. 
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
While Compliance shows that Great World of Sound was no fluke, it could not be a more different film. Based on a chilling true story, Compliance introduces us to Becky (Dreama Walker) a pretty young fast food worker who becomes the victim of a systematic sexual assault when a man posing as a police officer calls her harried manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), and accuses her of theft. Starting out with a plausible enough story, the man asks Sandra to take Becky in the back room for questioning. Even as his demands become more and more outlandish, Sandra, Becky, and the other employees of the Chick Witch remain shockingly compliant, blindly following his orders in the harrowing emotional and physical degradation of an innocent young woman.

It's a nerve-wracking and frustrating viewing experience as it becomes increasingly obvious that something isn't right. But over 70 such cases have been reported in 30 different states. It's a fascinating and deeply disturbing exploration of human psychology and the desire to "just follow orders." Even though they never see the man on the other end of the phone, they take him at his word that he is a police officer, and that idea of authority drives them to do the unspeakable in the name of obedience.

Dreama Walker in COMPLIANCE, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
What Zobel has accomplished here is something very impressive indeed. He keeps the action mostly confined to a tiny store room, with one of the principle characters only a vocal presence on the other end of a phone, and delivers one of the most harrowing thrillers of the year. Zobel proves that you don't need car chases, gunfights, and explosions to keep an audience on the edge of its seat, he does it by slowly working his way under our skin, making us profoundly uncomfortable, and almost making us complicit in the despicable deeds on screen. The audience becomes a passive 3rd party in the room, watching silently, helplessly, as the unthinkable unfolds before our very eyes.

It's easy to pass judgments on the characters for their complicity in such atrocity, but Zobel doesn't let us off the hook so easily. He confronts us with inescapable questions of what we would really do in such a situation? Would we catch the deception right off the bat? Or would we fall for the seductive comfort of the appearance of authority, cloaked in the reassurance that we are no longer responsible for what is actually going on? Zobel manages to divide our sympathies between characters, between the victim and the agents of her humiliation, and the blurred lines between them, creating a complex and unnerving psychological thriller that is unmistakably the work of a promising and daring new talent.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

COMPLIANCE | Directed by Craig Zobel | Stars Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd, Pat Healy, Ben Camp, Ashlie Atkinson | Rated R for language and sexual content/nudity | Opens today, 8/17, in NYC. Opens in LA 8/24.
For fans of the legendary Neil Young, Jonathan Demme's trilogy of concert docs, beginning with Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), to Neil Young Trunk Show (2009), and culminating with this year's Neil Young Journeys, have offered a unique and often fascinating insight into the musician's craft. I'll be the first to admit that I am not as familiar with Young's work as I should be. But even for the uninituated such as myself, it's hard not to become engrossed in Demme's fly on the wall look at Young's 2010 concert at Toronto's Massey Hall.

Driving solo from his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, in a 1956 Crown Victoria, Young shares tales from his childhood, reminiscences and reflections that offer a brief but tantalizing glimpse into the soul of an artist. The majority of the film, however, is comprised of extraordinarily intimate renderings of the highlights of Young's two night concert, with the camera getting so close that Young actually gets spit on the camera at one point. Demme brings us as close to the singer as it's possible to get without actually being him, which is part of what makes Neil Young Journeys so special.

Neil Young. Photo by Declan Quinn, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The film itself may seem a bit aimless, and indeed it does tend to meander in a kind of free form, leisurely way, but its seeming lack of basic structure is part of its charm, evoking Young's laid back outlook and musical style. He has a singular way of making us hang on his every word, turning each song (even the weaker ones), into a moment to treasure. Young doesn't just sing songs, he tells stories, and writes with a depth few songwriters ever achieve anymore. He reaches down deep, and Demme wisely just sits back and lets the cameras roll, never falsely manipulating anything for dramatic purposes. This is authentic, raw filmmaking.

As documentaries go it lacks perspective and insight into Young and what he's about, but that's not really what Neil Young Journeys is trying to do. It's a journey unto itself, a performance doc with a very special kind of intimacy. Demme actually makes us feel like we're on a road trip with one of the most important musical figures of the 20th century, and it's hard not to feel a thrill at the up close and personal nature of the film. If you're not a fan of Young's before coming to this film, it's difficult to believe anyone walking away unconverted. Young and Demme make a fantastic pair, and Neil Young Journeys is a terrific journey indeed.

GRADE - ★★★

NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS | Directed by Jonathan Demme | Featuring Neil Young | PG - language including some drug references, and brief thematic material |  Now playing in select cities. Opens Friday, 8/17, at the Park Terrace in Charlotte, NC.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

When the original Paranormal Activity was released, viewers had the opportunity to "demand it," leading to a wide release that wasn't previously scheduled. I was always a bit skeptical of it as a marketing ploy, but Paramount is once again asking fans to "demand" early screenings of the lucrative franchise's fourth installment through the Facebook App "Want It." The 25 cities with the most votes will get early screenings of the film prior to its October 19 opening.

You can view the leaderboard in real time. While Los Angeles and Houston are among the top ten, the other eight are not the usual suspects, which makes this a bit more interesting. My North Carolina readers are especially encouraged to vote for Charlotte, to help bring additional attention to the secondary markets that don't get the attention that the usual top 25 markets do.

Click here to view the film's trailer. Paranormal Activity 4 opens on October, 19.